Taxi Driver was an unlikely hit in 1976. At a time when audiences were lining up for traditional genre entertainments—Rocky was a smash, Star Wars was waiting in the wings—a movie with a psychotic Vietnam vet, a 12-year-old hooker and the bloodiest murder scene in memory joined the year’s 20 highest-grossing pictures.
It remains an iconic film today, thanks to indelible scenes (“You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here…”) and to Martin Scorsese’s brilliant leadership of an illustrious team including screenwriter Paul Schrader, cinematographer Michael Chapman, composer Bernard Herrmann and a stunning cast headed by Robert De Niro as hack driver Travis Bickle, Jodie Foster as hooker Iris, Harvey Keitel as pimp Sport and Cybill Shepherd as Betsy, the woman of Bickle’s delusional dreams.
Admirers of Taxi Driver can now revisit its pleasures (and traumas) in a splendidly produced Taschen book featuring on-set photographs by longtime photojournalist Steve Schapiro.
Schapiro covered everything from Haight-Ashbury hippies to the Civil Rights movement for top publications like Life, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair before making film his specialty in the 1970s, creating stills, posters and advertising art for Midnight Cowboy, The Way We Were, Risky Business and other major productions. The Taxi Driver volume is the second part of a trilogy he’s doing with Taschen: The Godfather Family Album appeared in 2008 and a Chinatown title is currently in the works.
In his introduction to the book, Scorsese recalls the New York City of the middle 1970s as “a nightmare version of itself,” which infused the movie with the contagious sense of “loneliness, the paranoia, the feeling of barren, dirty streets filled with angry people” that Schrader had captured in his script.
Schapiro’s remarkable achievement is to catch and hold these disturbing, often scary qualities in images as paradoxically beautiful as those shot by Scorsese and Chapman for the film.
Although he wasn’t a unit photographer on the production payroll, Schapiro spent 10 weeks with the cast and crew (the same amount of time he spent on the set of The Godfather) and had steady contact with the actors on all the sets and locations. He made excellent use of his opportunities.
I recently asked Schapiro what is uppermost on his mind when he’s shooting a movie set, and he talked a lot about emotions—those brought out by the subject, characters and atmosphere of the story, and those suggested by his proximity to the cast when the motion picture cameras aren’t rolling.
Interestingly, Schapiro doesn’t see a great deal of difference between his former work as a documentary photographer and what he does when he’s chronicling a Hollywood production.
“When you’re photographing a movie,” he says, “you have a script that tells you what’s going to happen next, and of course you don’t have that in other situations. But either way, you want to get pictures that are as emotional as possible and give a sense of what’s happening at that moment—when someone has a key expression, or something else that really sums up a person, a scene or an event.”
In compiling the Taxi Driver book, Schapiro didn’t aim to reproduce the film in still-picture form, but rather to “track along with the movie” in a string of images that takes on its own rhythms and momentum as it goes along.
Given his strong concern for visual rhythm, Schapiro was pleased when Taschen agreed to place most of the volume’s text—De Niro interviewed by Playboy, Scorsese interviewed by Schrader, a New York Times article on “Jodie Foster’s Rise from Disney to Depravity” and more—at the back of the book, allowing the photographs to flow with minimum interruption, apart from occasional quotes and chapter headings.
Variety comes from the different sizes, shapes and layouts of the pictures, and from the alternation of color and black-and-white images. Schapiro finds that monochromes generally project more feeling than color stills, but color is indispensable for the most dynamic Taxi Driver shots.
The book’s most stunning material comes near the end, where images from the film’s climactic bloodbath virtually leap off the page—more vividly in Schapiro’s images than in the film itself, where Scorsese was forced to placate the MPAA Ratings Board by desaturating the brilliant reds, rendering the violence a touch less horrific. Since horror is the whole point here, the brutal crimson of the blood in Schapiro’s photos—splattered on Travis, smeared on corpses, sprayed across walls and clothing—is utterly true to the grim spirit of the scene.
I’ve been looking at movie photo books for decades, and few have so consistently displayed the properties that Schapiro considers the essential elements of a first-rate image: “If you have the right combination of emotion, design and information,” he says, “chances are you have a good picture.”
Schapiro believes the audience for his Godfather book consists of people with “a sense of nostalgia for a movie they really love,” and who enjoy “seeing the images they remember all gathered in one place.” The audience for his Taxi Driver volume may be less nostalgic—the movie is tougher and harsher than that word implies—but it will be equally enthusiastic.
Scorsese’s nasty masterpiece is a movie for the ages, and Schapiro’s tribute is a must-see for anyone with a serious eye for modern American cinema.MM